RANTOUL — There were few, if any, mechanics shops in the area like Frazier’s Garage.
Tim Tadlock, whose TT Distribution Fasteners & Tool Sales used to be housed in the building at 109 S. Tanner St. that was heavily damaged by fire Wednesday, said people as far away as Decatur would ask where he was located in Rantoul. When he said the Frazier building, many people remembered it.
One reason was the unusual homemade lift system that carried vehicles to the second floor, where they were worked on.
Rantoul Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Kaiser said he remembers being fascinated with the set-up when he was a child — watching people drive onto the lift station and then watching it go up.
Kaiser later worked for several years next door at the Rogers auto dealership and said the Rogers and Frazier businesses helped each other if needed. In addition to serving as a repair shop for many years, Frazier’s was also an auto dealer.
As vice president and senior researcher with the Rantoul Historical Society, Steve Douglas has more than a passing interest in Frazier’s. He worked there as a young man for several years and has done historical work on Frazier’s and other long-since-closed mechanic’s shops in Rantoul.
After serving in the military out of high school, Douglas began an on-the-job training program at Frazier’s in December 1972 through Parkland College. He said the business was hot as blazes in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. Two large window fans didn’t help much to relieve the summer heat in the second-floor shop, and a clanky, inefficient heating system didn’t take much off the winter chill.
Douglas said the lift system was put in early in the building’s lifetime. At first it was a single-story structure, built in 1921. When the second story was added about seven years later, the “homemade freight elevator” was installed.
“It had 5,000-pound counter weights on either side of it. It never failed,” Douglas said. “I rode that thing, I don’t know how many times. It was quite a deal. It wasn’t (built) by Otis or anybody else. It was a design that Howard Frazier came up with. There was like a white picket fence (around it). It had a rope on either side of it. It went on a spool. As the elevator started to rise, this gate would start to lower to prevent anybody from falling into the pit.”
Douglas remembers an inspector coming from Champaign to check out the lift and was surprised. He’d never seen anything like it.
“It wasn’t anything that was on the market,” Douglas said.
Howard Frazier originally sold Saxon-Duplex automobiles out of a barn in rural Rantoul in 1912. Nine years later he brought his business to town.
“He also sold Brush automobiles, a single-cylinder automobile,” Douglas said. “My great-grandfather bought one of them. They went to the Methodist Church together.”
Douglas said there were many makes of horseless carriages in early days, only a few brands of which survived.
“He was getting in on the ground floor like a lot of people were,” Douglas said. “At that time Buick was only nine years old. Packard was only 14 years old or something like that.”
Douglas said when Frazier built the Tanner Street structure, he sold Oakland automobiles, the forerunner of Pontiac, and Hupmobiles. For three years in the 1930s, he also sold Austin vehicles. In later years they sold Pontiacs and Buicks.
The second story was where the engine overhauls, front-end alignments and refrigeration work took place. Work on the first floor included oil changes, undercoating and similar work. Kaiser said in its hey-day Frazier’s probably employed “seven or eight mechanics.”
Douglas said Howard Frazier was killed in an auto accident in December 1936. He was 47 years old. Frazier’s son, Don, took over the business, but he left for a time to be a pilot instructor in Oklahoma in World War II, and his mother, Leta, ran the place.
“She was a very knowledgeable lady and suspicious of guys coming in to work who wore granny classes and had long hair and wore beads” like Douglas did.
Kaiser said Don Frazier “was a character” who also judged NASCAR races for several years.
“It was the oldest dealership in Champaign County for a long time,” Douglas said. “1921-78, that was very unusual.”
Harold Hopkins bought the business and operated there for a few years before moving it to north Rantoul, but it soon folded after that.
Despite the building being nearly 100 years old, it was solid. Kaiser said firefighters expected the building’s walls to fall in from the fire after several hours of water being poured on it. But it became a giant swimming pool. The water didn’t escape until a large door was opened and about 2 1/2 feet of water came gushing forth. He said water continued to flow out of the building for about 30 minutes.